the only other similarly paired character set I can think of is Edmund and Edgar in King Lear… I ended up coming up with a mnemonic device to keep me from failing a UCLA quiz: EdMund — M = Malevolent, he’s the bastard; EdGar — B = Good… he’s the good guy
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have a pair of characters (Hermia and Helena) who are so similarly named, that it can become difficult to remember who is who (at least for me).
Thank goodness the two women are so different that we can keep them straight in our heads.
On the purely physical level, Hermia is diminutive: “puppet”, “dwarfish and low”, “minumus”, “bead”, “acorn” (III.ii.289, 295, 329, and both 330, respectively), while Helena has “height… (a) tall personage”, and is “(a) painted maypole” (III.ii.291, 292, and 296, respectively). This contrast goes deeper than the obvious to the philosophical and emotional.
Helena is much more traditional in her views of gender roles, while Hermia is more modern. For Helena, women are the weaker sex, a situation that she is willing to do nothing to change:
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo.
For Helena, to be a woman means to be the object of love, not an active agent or participant. She’s willing to follow Demetrius into the woods (as he follows Hermia), but only for something that he can grant her (“thanks” [I.i.249]). And when Hermia joins the men in a theoretically male activity (scorning Helena), Helena tells Hermia,
It is not friendly, 'tis not maidenly.
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury.
She is convinced that by joining men, Hermia will betray her entire gender (even though only Helena may feel the pain of scorn).
On the other hand, when Hermia is confronted Egeus’ demand of punishment for her failure to consent to her father’s marriage approval for Demetrius, she says to Theseus,
I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
She knows that it is not her (gender’s) place to question the situation (she has been “made bold”), but she calls for the possible punishments, which she will accept rather than offer her
virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke
(Her) soul consents not to give sovereignty.
She knows her gender’s place, but — in a purely modern act — is unwilling to stay in that place.
This difference in worldview may also have reared its head in their personalities. Both Lysander and Hermia agree that Helena is both a “sweet lady” and a “sweet playfellow” (I.i.108 and 230), respectively. Hermia, however, is seen by Helena as “keen and shrewd… a vixen… fierce” (III.ii.323-325). Is this negative view one shared by the community?
is Hermia a more sympathetic version of Taming‘s Kate?
Or is this merely the embittered subjective opinion of one whose worldview has been rebuked?
for those looking for a mnemonic for these women, think: HeLena — L = the lowercase L in Helena’s name, tall and straight; HerMia — M = “made bold” (I.i.59)
On the flip side, how do the two male lovers (with such different sounding names, Lysander and Demetrius) contrast with each other? As in many of the Midsummer productions I’ve seen (and now I’m thinking primarily of that stack of DVDs I just finished), I find the two to be pretty dull mirror images of each other (how either of these women, each with her own poetic [and rhetoric] sensibilities, could ever choose either of these guys… well, it’s beyond me). The only possible difference I can find in the text (at least thus far) is a possible difference in age.
fascinating then why Egeus would choose Demetrius in the first place… this might be something interesting to explore in casting/performance… if nothing else, wonderful grist for rehearsal breakdowns
When Hermia and Lysander are bemoaning the edict handed down by Theseus, Hermia says of Demetrius, “O spite! too old to be engaged to young” (I.i.138); yet Lysander later references his own age when he attempts to convince Helena that he now loves her: “Things growing are not ripe until their season: // So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason” (II.ii.117-118). Is Demetrius significantly older than Lysander? Beyond the obvious reason of Hermia’s love for Lysander, this age difference is obviously one of the reasons she has to oppose the marriage (also on the list, Demetrius’ perceived inferior social status [“O cross! too high to be enthralled to so low” (I.i.136)]). This is interesting since we know that Helena and Hermia are so close in their ages as they have shared “school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence” and they “grew together” (III.ii.202, 208).